Got Anxiety? Stop obsessing — managing intrusive thoughts
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Those who find themselves caught in the vicious cycle of ruminating on obsessional themes, such as harm and aggression toward self or others, typically make the following mistakes, which only serve to maintain their disturbing thoughts and images:
RESIST the intrusive thought.
SUPPRESS the upsetting image.
DISTRACT oneself when the obsession occurs.
There are two reasons why a person engages in these strategies; the belief that: (1) the obsessive thought has some special significance, and (2) the thought will result in performing an action which represents the thought itself, referred to as “Thought-Action-Fusion.”
For example, someone who experiences an obsession such as, “I’m going to suffocate my 1-year-old baby with a pillow,” comes to believe that he or she will actually perform this action.
Those who endorse this belief need to consider the following questions:
Is having a thought about performing a particular action SOMETIMES a necessary prerequisite for engaging in that behavior? The answer: “Yes, oftentimes that can be true.” For example, have you ever thought about washing your laundry before dinner one evening, and DID in fact perform this chore?
Is having a thought about performing an action ALWAYS a prerequisite for engaging in that action? The answer should be, “No.” For example, have you ever thought about washing your laundry before dinner, and did NOT perform this chore?
The point is, having a certain thought, particularly a very disturbing one, does not always result in performing the action associated with the thought.
The key word here is DISTURBING. The intrusive thought is upsetting to the individual because it is not consistent with how the person views themselves. Thus, the thought of sexually harming a young child may be inconsistent with the morals and values of the person having that thought.
There are always several mitigating factors (one’s personality, morals, values, etc.) concerning the possibility of following through with a particular action. Because of this, one needs to remind themselves that “thought-action-fusion” is a BELIEF.
It is an INACCURATE interpretation of the relationship between thoughts, and their corresponding actions. The following suggestions are offered to help better manage “un-welcomed” thoughts.
TAKING CHARGE OF INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS
1: Intrusive thoughts & images are involuntary, and do not define who you are as a person. They are un-welcomed thoughts that should not be assigned any degree of importance.
2: ALLOW and ACCEPT these thoughts to appear, and then watch them float away, as if they were clouds overhead Lake Tahoe. If you resist them, they will persist. This very attitude becomes your new form of CONTROL regarding this thought process.
3: When the thought occurs, make an attempt to POSTPONE worrying about it. Choose a time later that day (as short as 5-10 minutes, and then extend to longer time periods) to attend to the thought. Pay careful attention to your perception of the intrusive thought as the time period approaches. How meaningful is the thought at that point in time?
4: When the postponement time period arrives, decide to either start worrying about the “meaning” you are assigning to the thought/image (your typical strategy), OR decide to again postpone over-analyzing it for another time period. Postpone as often as possible.
5: During each postponement period, do NOT wait idly for time to pass. Instead, stay ACTIVE, doing what YOU NEED TO BE DOING. Be careful not to perform a task for the purpose of distraction. Instead, engage in a MEANINGFUL activity such as calling a friend, etc.
6: Change the MANNER in which you worry about the disturbing thought. Instead of your usual method of sitting around THINKING about what the thought means, WRITE DOWN the obsessive thought once you decide to attend to it. Write your exact thoughts, predictions, fears, etc. Continue to write your next thoughts, and then the next.
Following this modified manner of worrying (written vs. thinking) remind yourself how much time you just spent engaged in interacting with your irrational thought; a thought which typically FEELS dangerous to you.
Remind yourself that thoughts are not the same as actions. If they were, our jails would become even more over crowded. Can you imagine a police officer giving someone a traffic ticket because the person was “caught” THINKING about running a red light?
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.